The coronavirus pandemic is a life-changing event

March 18, 2020

That viral Twitter thread about how hard the coronavirus will hit the U.S. is terrifying, but perhaps the most frightening bit is how plainly it makes the case that in order to keep millions of people from dying we must essentially stay in lockdown for more than a year. Even if the federal government pulls its act together and performs heroically in coming months, and we get a miracle reduction in Covid-19 cases, we’re still looking at hundreds of thousands of deaths with lockdown conditions into 2021 to slow the virus’s spread.

That’s bad, and people more in tune with the economy than I am have already explained why we’re in for a good deal of pain in exchange for keeping people alive. But an underreported story is that a big chunk of people who emerge from this experience will be deeply affected by isolation tactics, separate from their respiratory outcomes, especially children who could find themselves next spring having spent a year experiencing anything from a dedicated home-schooling program, to a wide range of “distance learning” methods, to no meaningful education at all.

All that’s to say that even if we avoid total disaster, “only” a couple hundred thousand people die, and isolation tactics get called off the instant a vaccine gets developed and distributed, we’re still going to have a generation of young people whose educational and social paths were disrupted dramatically. What will that do to academic achievement measures? Friendship networks? High school and college students who are implicitly (or explicitly) developing professional networks? And that’s just what I was able to think of off the top of my head.

Maybe the kids will be okay and won’t miss a beat when they resume regular activities. But it’s looking more and more like at some point we’ll have to confront how this pandemic is going to alter the most basic functions of our society for a long time to come.

Photo: "New York National Guard" by The National Guard. Used under CC BY 2.0 license. Original caption: U.S. Army Spc. Reagan Long, a horizontal construction engineer assigned to the 827th Engineer Company, 204th Engineering Battalion, 53rd Troop Command, New York Army National Guard, alongside Pfc. Naomi Velez, a horizontal construction engineer assigned to the 152nd Engineer Support Company, 42nd Infantry Division, register people at a COVID-19 Mobile Testing Center in Glenn Island Park, New Rochelle, Mar. 14, 2020. Members of the Army and Air National Guard from across several states have been activated under Operation COVID-19 to support federal, state and local efforts. (U.S. Army National Guard photo by Sgt. Amouris Coss)